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Press Freedom Under Assault at Southwest Missouri State University
SPRINGFIELD, MO —Southwest Missouri State University (SMSU), a public institution bound by the First Amendment, is investigating the faculty advisor and student editor of its campus newspaper, The Standard, for publishing an editorial cartoon that a Native American group found "offensive." SMSU has refused to rule out a formal hearing on the matter, has requested that Standard faculty advisor Professor Wanda Brandon and editor-in-chief Mandy Phillips attend "mediation" to discuss the issue, and, according to Philips, has contacted The Standard to "advise" it that even reporting on the administration's intervention in this case could violate university policy.
"SMSU's attack on free speech, freedom of the press, and due process must end immediately," said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE. He added, "If publishing an innocuous satirical cartoon is sufficient to set off secret investigations and proceedings, then truly no speech is safe on America's college campuses."
The cartoon in question, printed in the November 21, 2003, issue of The Standard, was entitled "The 2nd Thanksgiving." It depicts two Native Americans meeting a Pilgrim woman with a gift of canned corn. The Pilgrim responds, "Gladys, the Indians are here and it looks like they brought corn…Again…" The cartoonist, who is not being investigated (and who is, himself, of Native American descent), later explained, "The point of the cartoon has nothing to do with Native Americans or Pilgrims…I was trying to reflect a common Thanksgiving tradition of a host griping about what their guest has brought to the dinner."
On the evening of December 2, 2003, three members of the student group American Indian Leaders of Today and Tomorrow came to The Standard's office. They complained about the cartoon to editor Mandy Phillips, who became nervous due to the level of anger the men displayed. The following morning, Phillips and Brandon filed a report with the Springfield Police. According to that report, the "very angry" men "threatened to have her [Phillips] fired as well as having the entire Navajo Nation rally against her and The Standard."
On December 5, Jana Estergard of SMSU's Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) contacted Professor Brandon to request a meeting about a complaint regarding The Standard. At the time, Estergard would not say who was a target of the investigation, nor would she provide further details. Brandon pointed out that The Standard's bylaws expressly prohibit her from controlling the content of the paper, but neither this fact nor the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press persuaded the OEO to drop its investigation. It was not until mid-January that Estergard gave Brandon even a brief summary of the charges against her. The complaint absurdly alleged that The Standard had violated a religious freedom law, a civil rights act, and university policy—all simply by publishing a cartoon.
Estergard ominously drew Brandon's attention to an OEO regulation that prohibits the target of an investigation from even divulging the fact that he or she is being investigated. This regulation not only prevents the subject of an investigation from getting advice on how to proceed, but also ensures that questionable OEO activities will not be exposed to public scrutiny. Standard editor Mandy Phillips states that the OEO attempted to use this policy to prevent the newspaper from printing an article about the investigation.
Professor Brandon refused an OEO proposal of "mediation" to settle the issue. According to Brandon, "I decided this was not right and that it was in fact illegal for the OEO to attempt to put me and the editor through a process that could result in punishment." When asked about the free speech controversy, SMSU President Keiser told a local newspaper that he thought that the cartoon was "dumb" and said, "This is not a free speech issue. It's an education issue."
Lukianoff noted, "Faced with a very similar situation in a 2001 FIRE case, University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton forcefully defended the inviolability of constitutional rights. President Keiser should learn from him." President Hamilton wrote to his administration that "responses to complaints or demands for action regarding constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech cannot be qualified. Attempts to assuage anger or to demonstrate concern by qualifying our support for free speech serve to cloud what must be a clear message…There is nothing to 'check into,' nothing 'to investigate.'" You may read University of Alaska President Hamilton's statement here.
"SMSU President Keiser's statement is the antithesis of Hamilton's defense of American liberties," said FIRE's Lukianoff. He added, "If a newspaper's freedom to publish is 'not a free speech issue,' one would be hard pressed to imagine what would be."
Professor Brandon contacted both the Student Press Law Center and FIRE. On March 16, FIRE wrote to President Keiser that "the First Amendment does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or 'offensive.'" FIRE requested that the OEO's investigation cease immediately and that SMSU reassure its students and faculty that it respects the Constitution and freedom of the press on campus. A day later, SMSU's general counsel replied, insisting that "Dr. Brandon has not been subjected to an investigation." He claimed, "the issue is education, not free speech."
Lukianoff concluded, "The only 'education' issue here is the need for SMSU to be educated about the rights of a free people, not to mention about irony and the art of cartooning."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty at SMSU and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center: 703-807-1904; email@example.com
Dr. John Keiser, President, Southwest Missouri State University: 417-836-8500; firstname.lastname@example.org
Jana Estergard, Equal Opportunity Officer, Southwest Missouri State University: 417-836-4252; email@example.com
John F. Black, General Counsel, Southwest Missouri State University: 417-836-8507; firstname.lastname@example.org
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